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An Early “Occupy” Episode


This historical snapshot of 1890s America reminds me of the famous “From Vancouver and on to Ottawa Trek” during the Great Depression in Canada. There was to be no New Deal for Canadians with a Conservative Government in power led by ruthless millionaire and certified arrogant asshole Prime Minister R B Bennett who had utter contempt for ordinary working people and the masses of unemployed. People on the Prairies literally starved and the unemployed were herded into concentration camps to stave off possible revolution. But Vancouver and much of British Columbia was a hotbed of radical dissent. The trekkers who hitched their ride on CPR boxcars and were fed by hundreds of working class supporters along the route never made it to Ottawa as the ruthless rogue R B Bennett called out the RCMP hired goons for the state when they arrived in Regina and beat the shit out of the helpless trekkers.

I wrote this in 2014:

A Slice of Forgotten Canadian History (Of course ignored by our sanitized conservative high school history courses)

Mark Leier wrote an excellent article in The Tyee on the Great On to Ottawa Trek of 1935, is a very popular history professor at Simon Fraser University. He's also written an excellent biography of the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin that I highly recommend. It's called Bakunin: The Creative Passion.

If you are interested in the larger context within which this incident (The Great Trek to Ottawa of 1935) played itself out, Pierre Berton's The Great Depression is wonderful source that covers the widespread suffering of the Canadian masses during the infamous decade, in addition to the callous insensitivity and incompetence of the governments at the time, rightly skewering the dimwitted multimillionaire Prime Ministers of the Great Depression, monarchist and militarist Conservative Party PM R. B. Bennett who was followed by Liberal Part PM and Mussolini lover Mackenzie King. R. B. Bennett was an ultra-conservative multi-millionaire silver spoon business tycoon, a hopeless bigot and pompous philistine who considered himself an aristocrat. He certainly lived the life of one, but without one iota of noblesse oblige. That he coveted a peerage more than anything else in life is instructive. Bennett had not even a morsel of understanding of how working people struggled and suffered. How could he? He certainly made no effort to find out; in fact, consistent with the know-nothing buffoon that he was, he blamed the Depression on the working classes for their sloth and unwillingness to work? Typically conservative attitude, don't you think? How supremely ignorant and insensitive is that? But then many working class people vote conservative either because they are devout Christians or internalize the values of their conservative masters and pampered reactionary preachers.

And how is it that a peculiar enigmatic man like Mackenzie King was re-elected so many times remains a Canadian historical mystery, a mama's boy who believed in all sorts of paranormal gobbledygook, religious pabulum and other palpable nonsense? He regularly participated in séances and was big fan of fascists like Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler - at least until WW II broke out. King was another right wing faux liberal who was in practise a rabid conservative reactionary, despite some of the lofty quasi-socialistic tracts he had written as a younger man.

All of Pierre Berton's books are riveting page turners and most of his works are still in print. Berton is a gifted writer and iconoclastic Canadian gem, a genuine Canadian icon and social critic that we badly need today. He makes Canadian history jump off the pages. He's probably an unknown commodity among our younger semi-literate lobotomized generation that walk about like solipsist zombies with their eyes, noses and turned to mush brains perpetually buried in their cell phones.

Fear for the future.

If you're a history buff as I am, you'll revel in Will Ferguson's informative and humorous books on Canadian history. You might start with his Canadian History for Dummies, or perhaps Bastards and Boneheads and then on to his many other marvellous books such as Why I Hate Canadians, How to be a Canadian, Canadian Pie and Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw; great reads all. In his brilliant Bastards and Boneheads he categorizes all Canadian historical figures (including every Prime Minister) as either a Bastard or Bonehead. Some like Brian Mulroney are granted both the "bastard" and "bonehead" distinction in both their public and private lives. Ferguson should add "pimp", "international criminal" and "bagman" to Lyin' Brian's resume. Then there’s the dickhead Prime Minister Stephen Harper, our current BBBBB (Bible Banging Book Burning Bozo) who has never put in an honest day’s work in his pathetic life. Who votes for these neo-fascist clowns?

Ferguson's books are hilarious, yet extremely informative. He has also written a few novels that have garnered five star reviews on Amazon.ca. Our two incompetent Great Depression Prime Ministers both took two deserving shots to the pot bellies from Ferguson: R. B. Bennett: A Bonehead in Bastard Clothing and Mackenzie King: A Bastard in Bonehead Clothing. I'm not sure I get his drift, but they sound appropriate.

Mark Leier’s article on the 1935 On to Ottawa Trek:

Learning from Canada's Boxcar Trekkers of 1935 | The Tyee

CBC History piece:

"On to Ottawa Trek" (cbc.ca)


An Early “Occupy” Episode

By James Haught, September 3, 2021

The terrible Great Depression of the 1930s wasn’t America’s only economic crash. Various lesser ones happened through the 1800s, almost in a 20-year cycle, inflicting poverty and suffering on working-class families.

Especially severe was a collapse in the 1890s. Thousands of businesses went bankrupt. Hundreds of banks failed. Farmers couldn’t find buyers for their crops. Around three million workers were jobless, roaming for charity, eating in soup kitchens and sleeping in shelters. In those times, America had no government safety net to help victims. The unlucky were cast into helplessness.

Amid the hardship, an Ohio reformer named Jacob Coxey hatched a dramatic plan: He called for an army of jobless men to march on Washington to demand federal work projects that would put the unemployed to work building roads, schools, libraries, hospitals, bridges and the like. He said his marchers would be a “petition in boots.”

Coxey’s right-hand man, Carl Browne, preached that the long ago disappeared from Christianity social gospel movement of Jesus demanding that America help miserable underdogs. He said all people have a share of Christ’s soul inside them, so the populace should feel sympathy for the hungry and homeless. He and Coxey called their movement the Army of the Commonweal of Christ. A painting of Jesus was prepared for the marchers, and a commissary wagon was emblazoned, “Sell what you have and give to the poor.”

Various out-of-work men and labor union members came to Coxey’s hometown of Massillon to join the proposed march. Conservative newspapers sent reporters who ridiculed the assemblage as “hoboes” and “dangerous cranks” in a “fanatical mob.” Headlines derided “Coxey’s Army.”

The march began on Easter, 1894, along Ohio’s crude and muddy roads. Some newspapers predicted that violence and criminality would result. But a strange thing happened: Sympathetic throngs greeted the band at each town, cheering the humanitarian cause, offering food, clothing and shelter to the hikers. One town contributed 300 pairs of shoes. Others produced brass bands and picnic feasts.

Across Pennsylvania and Maryland, more jobless men joined the array, despite springtime cold, even snow. The parade grew to 500 strong. At night, marchers huddled around campfires and slept in hay-filled barns.

As the march finally neared Washington, right-wing newspapers predicted armed violence and called for troops to quell the mob. But 10,000 Washingtonians turned out to greet and feed the visitors. Two thousand bicycle riders accompanied the procession. Four hundred Washington union members joined the throng.

Sympathetic congressmen introduced bills for federal work programs fitting Coxey’s vision. Coxey demanded a right to speak at the Capitol, but police refused. Lines of officers blocked streets. During a confrontation, police clubbed some bystanders, while Coxey rushed to the Capitol steps to speak. Police subdued him — but not before he handed his speech to a reporter.

Leaders of Coxey’s Army were jailed on charges of walking on the Capitol lawn. Followers set up a campground to wait for Congress to act.

Meanwhile, copycat protest armies of jobless men formed around America and began heading for Washington. Some assembled in California, the Pacific Northwest, the Rockies, the Midwest and New England. Many hitched a ride on freight trains to the nation’s capital, where they joined the campers.

In the end, Congress didn’t provide work relief. The encampment disintegrated in late summer. It was somewhat similar to the Occupy Wall Street episode that swept America in the early 21st century. Despite few tangible gains, it nonetheless focused a national spotlight on the plight of left-out people.



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